On November 15th Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson attended a breakfast held by the American Institute of Architects, a forum for exploring ideas and discussing possibilities for Los Angeles. With the City facing serious budgetary challenges, no budget solution can be left off the table, no matter how challenging and unusual. TPR presents the following partial transcript of Wesson’s candid discussion on the pros/cons of merging the Department of Building and Safety with Planning.
“The reason why I wanted to be here with you is because I want to know what you would think if we were to combine Building and Safety with Planning.” -Herb Wesson
Council President Herb Wesson: I know that you might want to ask me some questions, but I came here for selfish purposes. It wasn’t about you getting to know me—it was about me coming here to pick your brains.
Not too long ago, we had a budget shortfall of $1.1 billion. We’ve since frozen hiring; we’ve reduced our work force by 5000 people. In fact, our workforce today is at the same level that it was when Mayor Bradley was mayor 20 years ago. We’ve reduced the starting salary for our police officers by 20 percent. We asked our employees to make an 11 percent contribution to their pension plan as opposed to 6 percent, and they’ve done it. Our sworn employees went from 9 percent to 11 percent. We’ve voted on an ordinance that will change the retirement system for all new employees. We’ve consolidated departments. We’ve looked under the cushions. We’ve done everything that we could to try to close our gap, and we’ve done a phenomenal job. We’re now just $200 million short. We’ve decided to go to the voters and ask for a half-cent sales tax, which would generate $200 million for the city, help us stabilize, and from there we’ll have to make other cuts.
72 percent of the budget goes towards public safety. So we still have a pretty strong police department, but our fire department is basically operating with bubble gum and baling wire. If we get this tax through, we should be fine. But there’s still going to be a lot of work that we have to do.
I referenced earlier that we have consolidated departments. The reason why I wanted to be here with you is because I want to know what you would think if we were to combine Building and Safety with Planning. I believe it would save some money and, quite possibly, could be more efficient. Those of you that have done work in the County of LA realize that’s the way it’s set up over there.
When I said consolidating departments, we’ve consolidated smaller departments. The savings have not been that significant, but there have been savings. I always get police complaints, but after that I’d say that the planning process would be number two where it relates to the complaints that we hear in City Hall—complaints of time, complaints of going from this place to that place. So I really would like for us to have a discussion about that. It’s not like we’re in school; you don’t have to do homework. But the way I believe vision becomes reality is when you just throw stuff up in the air and begin a conversation. Maybe consolidation is not a good idea.
AIA-LA Member: Well, would you look at that idea before or after you look at consolidating all the Public Works departments?
Council President Herb Wesson: The Public Works departments seem to function, and I can’t remember when I’ve ever received a complaint about public works.
AIA-LA Member: But as far as the operational budget of the city goes, is that a disproportionate amount compared to the Building and Safety and Planning budgets?
Council President Herb Wesson: Andrew, what do you think?
Andrew Westall, Assistant Chief Deputy to Council President Herb Wesson: You know, 28 percent of the budget that we have in our general fund goes towards all these other departments, including Planning and Building Safety. Some of the public works, like Sanitation, are all on special fund. So it really depends.
I would say Building and Safety and Planning probably take up more of the general fund than the Public Works departments, and you probably get more substantial savings there. But that being said, a lot of these departments are funded by fees, as you well know, so whether it’s the Planning Department, Building and Safety, engineering, street services, or street lighting, you pay for those services.
The question is, “How efficient can these things become, and does the consolidation make sense?” As the Council President said, particularly with the Public Works department, we don’t hear a lot of complaints about those particular departments—they seem to function well. There might be some efficiency gained in combining them administratively, but they don’t seem to have the same problems that Planning and Building and Safety do—the amount of time it takes to get through the entitlement process, the amount of time it takes you to get inspections and green inspections…
Council President Herb Wesson: We’ve never had someone come to the office and complain about Public Works. Every day there are individuals in the office with Building and Safety issues, and Planning concerns. And like Andrew said, we pay for everything with 28 percent of our budget, and I should have said this earlier: if we don’t pass the sales tax, then we’re going to have to cut $200 million. So, again, if 72 percent of our budget goes to public safety, the cuts are going to be in public safety. Now I’ve heard people complain, “Oh the sales tax! People are going to go to other cities; business are not going to come to the City of LA.” You let our crime go up, then we’ll loose businesses.
AIA-LA Member: There’s a context that I think your question needs to be placed in, which is that the zoning code was written shortly after WWII. And it’s the book with amendments—it’s a Frankenstein document that we all suffer through when we work on projects in this city. There’s an effort to rewrite and reorganize the zoning code and to have more projects be by-right. Today there are very few projects with any kind of vision or creativity that don’t need discretionary action, that don’t need to come from council office and get a hearing, taking a lot of time away from your staff and from the part of architects, planners, consultants, and land-use attorneys. There are very few projects with any kind of forward-thinking component at all that fit in the 1946 zoning code.
So there’s an effort now to rewrite the zoning code, and they’ve hired a consultant, and it’s starting. It’s one of the things that the AIA and architects in general are going to be watching very closely. If that is not under-funded and is done properly, the savings, efficiency, and customer satisfaction down the line should all flow clearly from that. So this is not the time to tie our hands and not do it properly.
Council President Herb Wesson: Please, again, I’m very serious; I’m excited about this meeting because I want to learn from you. I really appreciate what you said, and I hope that all of you open up because Andrew is like a sponge—he’ll suck it all in, and then he and I will discuss it.
AIA-LA Member: I was just wondering if I could follow up on this conversation. The real problem is getting entitlements in the City of LA—I’m not surprised that’s where you get your complaints. But it’s not necessarily because they’re separate departments, because the role of Building and Safety and the role of Planning are just fundamentally different roles. And I would worry that making a more efficient process for zoning and securing entitlements would eliminate a lot of what you’re hearing.
The worry about bringing Planning inside Building and Safety is that Building and Safety is primarily a life-safety mission. Their job is to endure that buildings are built safely, to building code, etc. Planning reflects the will of the community and its leaders in how they want the community to grow and be shaped. They’re vastly different missions, and LA is has always (though it’s getting better in recent years) been weak on the planning side. So bringing Planning inside Building—I would worry that it would become weaker.
Council President Herb Wesson: And you would too?
AIA-LA Member: I would too. I must say, my experience of being in LA for about 20 years, whether it’s been in academic circles or community circles—I serve on the Westwood Design Review Board—or whether it’s been in professional circles, is that LA is struggling with becoming the city it should become because developers showed up before the government showed up. If anything, I think the vision that we’ve developed for LA has to be set by the Planning Department, and developers have to be told what they can and cannot do. Those rules have to hold.
I think for a long time because LA was young, it looked to Chicago and New York and European models for what a city should be, and a lot of those cities had been sort of like one block of stone, with the streets and areas carved out of it.
LA isn’t like that. LA really is a garden with buildings placed in it. We’re entirely different. It’s hard for me with the traveling that I’ve done to pick a city that LA is like. I mean, LA is sort of like the Garden of Eden that hasn’t flourished yet. We could plant orange, lemon, and avocado trees down every boulevard and let the whole Central Valley come in and give a character to LA that no other city in the world has. But I do think that the energy that developers have makes them like the last cowboys. It’s a fabulous energy, and they’re ambitious, and they want to build, change things, and make money. If we could get that energy to connect with the real vision that we have for the city, this town would just explode, and it would be awesome.
I agree that if we put Planning in an umbrella that doesn’t distinguish it as the element that really protects and enforces the vision, I’m afraid it’s just going to weaken it even more than it is now.
David Abel (TPR): I have an alternative suggestion, and I’m wearing my hat as the outgoing public board member of the AIA—I wear a lot of hats. Why don’t you consider, instead, merging the Police Department with the Recreation and Parks Department? Clearly, police responsibilities include prevention, a mission similar to the purpose of excellent Recreation or Parks programs. It is noteworthy that such a consolidation has been done in cities like Redlands.
I totally understand the budgetary pressures that lead to a discussion of merging B&S and Planning. But this proposal really shows, speaking to the architects in the room, the design and planning professions’ political weakness. It is quite possible that such a consolidation will suffocate what little is left of architecture and planning in the city. I would much prefer to see a conversation about Rec and Parks within the Police Department than Building and Safety and Planning merging.
Council President Herb Wesson: Don’t get me wrong, please. Don’t think that this idea is already happening.
I’ll tell you, I don’t think I would have ever dreamed of merging Rec and Parks with Police. However, I do agree with you that their prevention is critical and our Rec and Park Department, now, is on life support. And, again, in the event we were successful in the sales tax, we’d sustain the Police Department and we would enhance the Fire Department because they are really suffering. The City Attorney’s Office is another key to that four-legged stool, and just Tuesday we had to continue an item where they want to lay off 50 more city attorneys. So we need to augment the City Attorney’s budget. And then the fourth would be Rec and Parks, and everything else we’d just have to try to stabilize. We have to stay focused and disciplined—no raises, no new programs for a while. Andrew, let’s get some data on Redland’s Police Department and Rec and Parks.
Andrew Westall, Assistant Chief Deputy to Council President Herb Wesson: It sounds like what I’m hearing is that Planning is what LA can be, that kind of visionary culture, and Building and Safety is kind of what you can’t do, the reality check. So the cultures are really different, and the concern is that if they were merged, Planning, visionary culture would get absorbed into Building and Safety and be lost? Is that what I’m hearing?
AIA-LA Member: There are two really important parts of Planning—one is the application of approved plans, which is something that actually could live within the building department because it’s related to permitting. But there’s the advanced planning, which is deciding where the community wants to go—general plans, specific plans, neighborhood plans, various things that really determine, with community input, where and how growth should happen.
Council President Herb Wesson: This is really good! Let’s keep it up. Somebody else jump in, participate!
David Abel: It seems to me that although it was a crime that Measure J failed after being approved by more than 65 percent of the County’s voters, previously approved Measure R investment is $30 billion-plus for improving mobility in Los Angles. So, if budgets—the allocation of public dollars—are a numbers version of civic and public vision of what the city thinks is important, it seems to me that the reshaping of this city through the building out of rail and public transit, water, and sanitation infrastructure, etc. requires more city planning, not less, if this city is going to have livable communities in the future. Thus, the LA City Council’s budget essentially says, “We think we could probably save some money by consolidating two relatively unimportant departments—Planning into Building and Saftely.” Such a recommendation could suggest that our elected officials think city planning will not be a priority issue for the next ten to twenty years. And I think that’s unlikely to be true.
Council President Herb Wesson: I think that what is happening at the City is that for so long we’ve been in crisis mode. It makes it very difficult to forward-think. I’ll probably be giving this speech all the way until March 6th, but if we can stabilize the City’s budget, I think people can take a deep breath and incorporate some of the ideas that you have suggested. I know I’ve learned a lot this morning. I love learning, so I don’t want it to stop.